Interpersonal conflict reflects the transposition of intrapsychic conflict within each partner on to the couple relationship. The mental mechanism that is responsible for this transformation is projective identification, the core concept of the object relations approach.
Melanie Klein (1946) defined projective identification as “a combination of splitting off parts of the self and projecting them onto another person,” later describing it as “the feeling of identification with other people because one has attributed qualities or attributes of one’s own to them”. Klein saw this as a defensive mode evolving from an early infantile developmental stage in which anxiety is warded off by experiencing intolerable affects, especially aggression, as if they resided in a space external to the self. This defensive “splitting” thereby creates the first “me–not me boundary.” As the infant matures, and a self–object boundary develops, the preobject “not me” realm fuses with the object world, and what is projected is now directed into the mental image of the other. However, what is projected, is not only the disavowed aspects of the self but also those aspects that are cherished.
Much before Klien, Sigmund Freud (1921) provided an example of projective identification in characterising the “falsification of judgment” that accompanies the idealisation of loved objects, what we refer to as falling “head over heels” in love. The tendency that falsifies judgment in this respect is that of idealisation, but now it is easier for us to find our bearings. We see that the object is being treated in the same way as our own ego, so that when we are in love a considerable amount of narcissistic libido overflows onto the object. It is even obvious, in many forms of love choice, that the object serves as a substitute for some unattained ego ideal of our own ego, and which we should now like to procure in this roundabout way as a means of satisfying our narcissism.
In a more modern and comprehensive view (Zinner 2001), we can say that projective identification is our universal way of perceiving and comprehending others. When we are interacting with another person, our behaviour toward that other is determined by our mental image of him or her. Our consequent behaviour impinges on and affects that other person, but the person we are relating to exists only within our mind as a construct. This created mental image of the other is built from sensory stimuli coming from the outside that are then processed by our own mental apparatus.